Understanding Power


Some Thoughts on Power:

Power.  For many this is a very provocative word.  I find in my practice that it is most often associated with abuse or something bad.  I likely would have said the same in my young adulthood.

When we think of Mother Theresa do we think of power?  Of Martin Luther King?  Of Mahatma Gandhi?  Do we conjure images of mountain climbing, of yoga asana and meditation practice?  I hope so.  But when we associate the word power with something bad we've likely experienced abuse of power in our life time.


It seems that in the last year, it is possible that we have seen more overt images and representation of power in the media than we have seen since the 1960's and maybe ever before.  We are seeing images of girl power, of black power, of Trump power.  We are seeing images of police officers exhibiting power over innocent people, black people going about their lives.  We are seeing images of student power rising up to reclaim their security in the world.  We are seeing a righteous female power demanding the end of misogyny and exposing sexual assault as a daily occurrance.  We are seeing religious leaders demand that they know what it means to live a wholesome life and that all other examples of being and living are wrong.  We are seeing men asserting their power to make decisions for women on healthcare and women asserting their power to say, "No, that won't work for us."

So what is it?  Power. Is it good?  Is it bad?  I'm sure as you read these examples in your mind you assigned good and bad to these various examples.  Perhaps with good reason.  However, I'd like to move away from good and bad and toward some important facts on power.

To put it simply, there are two forms of power: Power Over and Power With.  The Power Over model is dualistic.  There are two opposing forms of power.  Within the Power Over paradigm there must be power under—or without power.  We are seeing this modeled in our government at present and throughout our nation and what is cropping up in backlash is an assertion of another kind of power.  A type of power we call Power With.

Power With is an inclusive power.  It’s the power that understands human rights, the rights of animals, the rights of planet earth.  It is a power that understands other.  And it is the form of power that we are working on and moving toward within therapy and within the therapeutic alliance.

Parents often believe that to parent they must govern the power and that if they don't their child will be out of control, spoiled, or entitled.  In a Power With parenting model the parent is the adult that holds adult power that includes appropriate and effective boundaries, respect for other and respect for self, the ability to listen to, to attune to and to be flexible enough that the child is participating within a secure and contained system but not so contained that their power and growth is stifled.  Power With understands the innate right to power, to having a say, to human rights.  Children are humans too and by default they also have power.  Power With understands other and other's right to power.  Not just humans but any living creature. 

In Power With we move away from right and wrong and good and bad.  We are not here to say what is right for you, for other.  Hmmm…provocative?  This does not equal complacency, of standing by and watching abuse of anyone or anything take place because within the Power With model there is an inherent right to power that is being respected and honored.  But I am not here to tell you who to love, what god to pray to, whether you should put bows in your hair or not.  In Power With we understand that these are not our decisions to make.

My first blog, Understanding Codependency, is my first introduction to these two paradigms.  To connect some dots, the power over model resides within the codependency paradigm and Power With, interdependency.

In Power Over we attempt the control of others, in Power With we recognize that real control lies within our own choices, how we treat ourselves and others, how we react to our feelings, how we conduct ourselves.  We have no control over anyone else.  And in truth, no one else has control over us.  Therefore, we cannot wait for someone to liberate us, we must rise up and do this our self.

Many of us know the wonderful words of Eleanor Roosevelt "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."  A century earlier William Ellery Channing said something similar "No power in society, no hardship in your condition can depress you, keep you down, in knowledge, power, virtue, influence, but by your own consent."

Someone recently asked me "Does this mean that someone brings abuse upon themselves?"  NO!  Never!  But it may mean that you were taught to seek out abusive relationships as you were likely raised within a power over model and therefore not given the opportunity to learn of your own inherent right to power in relationships.

I have a provocative truth which is that I was raised to be raped.  I promise you that my parents had absolutely no intention of raising me in this way and would likely be mortified to read this and to learn this of my upbringing.  To my parents, most especially to my Italian-Portuguese American father, an assertion of my voice, my power, was seen as a sign of disrespect and disobedience.  I must not question.  He meant well.  It was very important to him to have "good" kids and for them to be "upstanding citizens", most especially his daughter.  Girls are goodAnd good is obedient.  And obedient does not question.

What my father didn't understand is that I needed that voice to protect myself and keep my body safe.  If I didn't have any practice saying 'No.', how was it that I was ever going to be able to say "NO!"?  If I didn't have practice questioning authority how was I going to navigate my education, how was I going to advocate for myself in my first job?  How was I going to feel respected, powerful in my career, successful?  I'm sure you can imagine my coming of age and young adulthood was quite challenging.  Sometimes I feel like I was a young adult well into my late thirties.  Adulthood came to me after decades of therapy and learning about my rights as an individual and cultivating my voice and learning, learning, learning so very much from my clients about power and the misuse of power and how and where to locate this power within.  I didn't become an adult until I stepped into my own power.

It's there.  It already exists.  And its waiting.  We just have to step into it.

I often say to my clients that anger is the agent for change! Not because power is always angry, but because it is one important version of your power.  So is love.  So is kindness.  So is discernment.  And so is respect, self respect.


Understanding Codependency


Understanding Codependency

I find that codependency is often misunderstood, even among well educated colleagues.  Perhaps because its not part of training programs?  Perhaps because it is still associated with 12 step programming rather than mental health? It wasn't something that was addressed in my training 17 years ago; it was something I had to learn about on my own, something I had to detangle over the years in my own personal growth work and that work of my clients.  Understanding codependency is something that I see as having moved well beyond 12 step programming and into the general understanding and practice of relationships and mental health. 

Codependency is a relationship paradigm that goes hand in hand with trauma, abuse, and substance abuse as it inherently involves an imbalance of power and a forfeit of personal power.  Codependency almost always walks in the door with a new client.  Codependency is almost always there with suffering, depression, anxiety and sexual assault to name a few.

Codependency doesn't know the word "no".  "No" is seen as selfish, it is taken personally, it is accompanied by shame and guilt.  Interdependency is the relationship paradigm we are working in within the therapeutic alliance, what we are training for in communication and self care in relationship with self and others.  In interdependency "no" is a word that simply expresses—it expresses a need, a desire, personal power; it’s a word of self advocacy.  Where in codependency, boundaries are seen as mean, in interdependency they are seen as essential for the survival of peace of mind, safety of body, and security of spirit.

In the codependent paradigm the sense of self and individuality has been chipped away at through the methods of guilting, shaming and boundary violation.  In interdependency there is a reverence to self and other, a deep respect for difference.

I first heard about codependency from my husband.  At the time we were only newly dating, I was in my training program at Lesley University, he a young and progressive community minister.  He was also in therapy and codependency was something he talked a lot about in relationship to his upbringing.  He was fiercely trying to avoid it in intimate relationships.  This was attractive!  I allowed myself to date him as I was in recovery from too many of my own toxic, and what I now know to be, codependent relationships. However, I knew none of this at the time.  I just liked that he was in therapy, looking at his upbringing and looking not to repeat the same mistakes.  From the wise advice of Eleanor Roosevelt we hear  "Learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself."

Like all of us learning something new, he knew how to identify it and he knew he suffered from it, he knew the rancid stink.  I knew of suffering.  I had been in therapy for about three years, but I did not know of codepdenency.  For the first time, the elephant in the room was being addressed and if I'm being honest, I didn't even know it.  And so, we continued dating and we continued talking about this thing called codependency that I didn't think I had much to do with but it was sexy and offered a sense of security, a man in therapy addressing relationship problems.  I'm in!

Over the years, I became the one who recognized the stink and even an impatient intolerance for it within my most intimate relationships.  I sadly lost a friend because I became her codepdency coach and radar machine.  I was so intolerant!  It was as if it was threatening to take me over and I was fighting to breath!   With my mother and my husband, when it rears its ugly head I will still grumble but hopefully have softened a bit.  You see—as I was trying to escape codependency and developed a strong distaste for it I was still operating within the system.  In interdependency we do not manage others—and with that there is freedom, sweet freedom!  Sing your praises!

It took losing my friend and almost my mother to see this.  "I thought codependency was my husband's thing?"  Clearly not!

For sometime now I've even recognized American culture as codependent, involving ourselves in the business of other nations while our own crumbles; children keep killing each other, there are messages everywhere that its not okay to be you, protect you, be respected as you.  So, it is virtually impossible to escape this paradigm growing up in this country but this is not an excuse from addressing this within you.  It is at the core of EVERYTHING!

You have the right to live freely.  You have the right to respect yourself, your needs, your desires.  You have the right to live your life—to marry (or not marry) who you love, to choose the career that makes your heart sing (not the one you are told is going to bring security), to say NO!

Some signs that you are living your life within a codependent paradigm: 

·      You feel resentful of others, especially when they take care of themselves! 

·      You feel guilty for asking for your needs! 

·      You feel obligated to do things for others. 

·      You feel mean when you say no. 

·      You are unable to or don't know that you can take part in self care. 

·      People accuse you of being a 'control freak!' 

·      You feel very out of control in your life. 

·      You feel unloved and uncared for. 

·      You are depressed.  You are anxious.  You are unable to see your future. 

·      You feel that other people own your life.  You feel stifled, smothered…You suffer from FOMO. 

These are just to name a few!

You don't have to live your life this way.  And you most definitely do have the right to be happy and to live a life that is yours!  In interdependency we recognize this as a powerful influence not as the harming of others, most especially those we love.  In interdependency we know that we don't have to leave the ones we love behind, but take them with us as long as they are willing.

blk&wht botanical.jpg

Creating a healing environment

Creating a healing environment



Giving careful consideration to my office aesthetic has always been important to me ever since I started out working within institutions.  It made sense to me from the start that environment plays an important role in healing.  By my new co-workers at the time I was seen carrying in small bits of furniture, lamps and always plants in an effort to reduce the institutional feel of the provided office and to create, instead, an environment that was warm and welcoming and that would put my clients at ease.  Hopefully, they would sense that they were walking into a safe and nurturing space.  If we nurture our environment, chances are good, we nuture ourselves, and chances are even greater then that we nuture our clients.  I was, from the very beginning, told by my clients that they appreciated my efforts and that it made them feel more relaxed.



Today, in private practice for over 11 years now and in my current space I have a lot more control.  For the first few years I was there, it was painted a vibrant and simultaneously warm yellow that I felt invoked hope and warmth—like we were gathering around the hearth.  Recently, I chose to repaint.  As much for me as for my clients, I felt it was time to simplify, to reduce the clutter that had gathered over the years and to keep what matters most, healing objects.  This time around, I wanted my office to feel more spa-like but still intimate.  I wanted to bring in the quiet and support introspection and contemplation.  As the world is often so loud so is the interior of our minds and this can make the task very challenging for many of us.   As such, I try to conceal the paperwork in drawers or if I must, keep tidy piles.


I have kept the plants and have even added more.  I decided to make the plants more of a central focus as they are here to clean the air and offer the courage to grow.  I always have tea and water in the waiting room; even if it is not made use of it sends a welcoming message.  Often a client just holds the warm mug, uses it as something to gaze into as they prepare the sometimes harrowing journey of gazing into their own mind and heart.  Psychotherapeutically this warm mug and gift of tea represent the caretaker that is needed and longed for.


Holding space is not just how we show up in the space as providers but it is also the space, the shelter, the container that we create that matters in supporting our clients on their healing journey.


How to help a friend in need

How to help a friend in need

by Stacy Donn Cristo, LMHC



When people we care about face deep pain and suffering, we can often in turn experience a sense of helplessness. Questions such as, "What am I supposed to do?", "How do I fix the situation?", or "How do I keep this person safe?" are likely to enter our minds.

I had the recent pleasure of sitting in on a meeting of Project LETS at RISD when the topic of not knowing how to offer real help entered the conversation. I also respond to these types of questions and concerns in my therapy practice; a client may end up feeling responsible for the welfare of a peer or loved one who is struggling. This can provoke mental health issues for the appointed caretaker as it can be scary and overwhelming and elicit a sense of helplessness that manifests as anxiety and depression.

We often think to be a good friend means to offer really good advice and more: to fix the situation and take away the hurt. It’s painful to see someone we love hurt. Of course we'd want to take the pain away!

Paradoxically, what our loved ones need is not to be fixed but rather to be free to safely express themselves in their vulnerability. Feeling unsafe to be  vulnerable is often what keeps people from seeking proper help. We need to be seen and heard and offering a space for your loved ones to do that is is not only what they need most, but also simpler for you than attempting the impossible task of fixing it.

“Paradoxically, what our loved ones need is not to be fixed but rather to be free to safely express themselves in their vulnerability.

Another important thing about humans is that we don't need advice. Although we often think we do and often think we should give it, really what we need, what our friends need, is support attending to their hurt and finding resolution. Remember, we are each and everyone of us unique, therefore what we need is unique too, and it’s important not to assume.

Here are some ways to support a friend in need in a safe and validating way, as well as how to assess risk.

How to be a safe, supportive friend:

  1. Take the time to listen. Notice your own feelings around what the person is telling you, try to care for your own feelings, and keep them separate from your friend’s feelings. This will help you to listen to your friend.

  2. Show them you've heard them. Reflect back to your friend  what you've heard: ie. "I'm hearing you say that you feel really unsafe right now."

  3. Use a validating statement, such as: "that sounds really scary" or "that sounds really painful."  To validate means to show that something is real (as they’re experiencing it) and acceptable. An example of invalidating: "Don't be silly, you're amazing."  This sounds like a compliment, but what  your friend hears is that what they’re experiencing doesn’t matter because feeling this way is silly. Instead, try "I know what it's like to feel (worthless) but I see you as (so strong and capable). Be careful not to go into your own story.  Sometimes we do this to connect but often it leaves a person feeling unheard. If you felt it was helpful to your friend to know that they are not alone, share an example from your life, but keep it brief. Just enough to show them that "together we have a shared experience." This can help to normalize their experience.

How to assess risk:

Remember, somebody came to you because they trust you. You've shown them something positive about yourself along the way.

Sometimes people just need to talk about their feelings and feelings are not to be mistaken with behaviors.

"I am going to kill myself" is different from "I feel like killing myself." Still, both are very scary to hear from a friend, or anybody for that matter.

Let's look at "I am going to kill myself." This statement includes behavior. Remember — your friend is telling you! If a person didn't want help they wouldn't tell anyone. They would make it happen. Do your best to stay calm. The best way to stay calm is to keep breathing and to gently ask some questions, like "Do you have a plan?" or  "Is there something bothering you that you'd like to talk about?". To start, you are getting this person to talk.

"I feel like I am going to kill myself" involves the same initial strategy; get your friend talking and gather some information.

REMEMBER: You are not a trained professional nor are you expected to be!

Some useful things that you can say: 

  • "I care about you and your safety and I want to make sure that you have the kind of help that you need and want."

  • "It sounds like you need more help than I can give and I want to make sure that you have it because you have the right to it."

  • "What I'm hearing you say is that you need help feeling and/or staying safe. Will you let me help you find assistance with this?"


Now what kind of help? How do you know how to direct your friend?

  • "I have a plan= call 911 or campus safety and report a mental health emergency.  They will send a trained paramedic. Ideally you do this with your friend if they are willing. If they are unwilling, you find a quiet place and send the paramedic to the location of the person. If you don't know their exact location, call anyway.

  • "I have no plan and I don't want to kill myself I just feel like it sometimes" = Engage the person in a conversation of what they need right now to be safe as well in the next couple of days. This might mean, "Why don't you sleep over and tomorrow we can look for a therapist or go to urgent care?" or "I think it would be best for you to get some immediate help" =911/Urgent Care facility/Campus safety

  • ALWAYS TRUST YOUR GUT and know what you can handle! It is always better to be safe than sorry.

What happens in the aftermath of calling 911?

First of all, know that your interest to help and your willingness to take time to educate yourself make you a good friend. Even if your friend can't see this right now and is angry with you, you did the right thing. People have the right to feel angry, but they do not have the right to hurt. Sometimes we have to tolerate a friend's anger. Make sure you have the support you need. Perhaps it would be helpful for you to be talking to a therapist to process this experience. Helpers need help, too.

If your friend allows, follow up with them. Ask them how they are doing and if it'd be helpful for them to talk some more. Make sure they got connected to a mental health professional and they secured what they needed in place. The first try isn't always successful. You can offer to support them in trying again, regardless of the scenario. As the old saying goes, "you can bring a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink!" If you need to call 911 or campus safety because a person is just that unsafe over and over again, then that is what you do.

For more information and support on this topic please refer to the Samaritans who are the experts on understanding suicide and suicide prevention: